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Buying & Leasing a Car

Best Values in Clean Cars

Hybrids aren't the only vehicles that go easy on the environment.

Just months ago, Leigh Steinberg was cruising the streets of Southern California in a gas-guzzling Mercedes SUV. Now he drives a Lexus hybrid.

For this superstar sports agent -- widely considered to be the model for Jerry Maguire -- buying a Lexus RX 400h was a symbol of his conversion to environmental activism. In fact, he has a team working on "an ambitious program to 'green up' sports," he says. It includes running stadium scoreboards on solar power, installing water collectors to irrigate playing surfaces and, perhaps most important, persuading athletes who drive Hummers and Escalades to ditch the brawny bling and be better environmental role models. He's even working on a hedge fund to finance it all.

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As for the Lexus, he says, "having a hybrid is a statement, but it's not much of a sacrifice -- I'm able to drive a luxury car with high performance and luxury amenities that saves considerable amounts of energy. Why not do it?"

With the number of hybrids on U.S. roads approaching the one-million mark, it's clear that many people have come to a similar conclusion. Sales of the Toyota Prius soared this year as the company ramped up production and even offered cash-back incentives. Saving energy has gained traction with policymakers, too. Congress is struggling to reach a consensus on the first increase in car fuel-efficiency standards in two decades.

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Automakers, however, are less than enthusiastic about higher fuel-economy standards, having spent the past 20 years increasing the size and weight of vehicles while treading water on miles per gallon. "The problem with the global auto industry is that it's using little Band-Aids on the technology to mitigate the increasing size and horsepower of vehicles," says Brad Berman, editor of HybridCars.com.

The industry's strategy thus far has been to push a limited number of high-tech alternative-energy vehicles rather than putting all cars, trucks and SUVs on a fuel-economy-boosting diet. Companies have spent a fortune developing hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, which reduce tailpipe emissions to water. But without a network to create and distribute hydrogen fuel, such vehicles are still years away. Many automakers have added hybrids to their arsenals, and hopes are high for clean-diesel, ethanol and electric vehicles. Trouble is, the variety of technologies can be confusing, and the real contribution these vehicles will make to a better environment is not always clear.

We've worked to decipher the bottom line for the environment and your wallet. See our Earth-Friendly Autos Scorecard to learn how 14 models measure up.

Hybrid hopes

By the end of the year, 17 hybrid models will be available. Hybrid sales are projected to increase to 345,000 in 2007, up from 256,000 in 2006, according to J.D. Power and Associates. That sounds like a lot, but it's still only about 2% of vehicle sales. What's holding people back? One major obstacle is the higher sticker price for a hybrid over a comparable gas-engine model. Even if gas prices soar to $4 per gallon, you're unlikely to recoup the extra cost with savings at the pump.

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Two notable exceptions are the affordable Toyota Prius ($22,795) and Honda Civic Hybrid ($23,195). If you look at ownership costs over five years (including federal tax credits), the $5,000 price premium you'll pay over conventional models almost disappears. Among midsize sedans, the Toyota Camry hybrid ($26,820), Nissan Altima hybrid ($25,615) and Saturn Aura Green Line ($22,695), which mate fuel-thrifty four-cylinder gas engines with electric motors, also come out favorably in the economic equation. (Tax credits vary by model and are completely phased out for Toyota and Lexus hybrids after September 30. For more information, see Tax Breaks for Green Cars.)

But sedans that use hybrid technology to boost performance without boosting mpg much are another matter. Honda discovered that buyers were reluctant to spend $31,685 for the Accord Hybrid, which features a six-cylinder engine and can sprint from zero to 60 miles per hour in 6.5 seconds. It will retire the car this year. Lexus markets its luxury high-performance hybrid sedans, the $55,615 GS 450h and the $105,000 LS 600h, as technological showcases and limits production to about 2,000 a year.

Not convinced the premium for a hybrid is worth it? Check out these seven economic gas-engine cars.

Hybrid SUVs

Betting that Americans are loath to part with their SUVs but want better fuel economy, carmakers are offering seven 2008-model hybrids, and the Porsche Cayenne hybrid is due out later in 2008. A case can be made for buying a Ford Escape hybrid, a Mercury Mariner hybrid or a Saturn Vue Green Line -- the smallest hybrid SUVs, with four-cylinder gas engines.

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The calculations get fuzzier, however, with large and midsize SUVs. For example, the hybrid version of the redesigned 2008 Toyota Highlander gets combined city and highway fuel economy of 26 mpg, compared with 20 mpg for the gas-engine Highlander. (Note that fuel-economy numbers for 2008 models are lower than for 2007 models because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency instituted new testing procedures.) At $3 a gallon, the annual fuel cost for the hybrid is $1,730, versus $2,250 for the gas-engine model (assuming you drive 15,000 miles a year). That's a savings of $520 a year. Prices for the new Highlander hybrid haven't been announced yet, but the premium over the base gas model is likely to be about $8,000 -- enough to give many buyers pause.

One plus with hybrids is that they burn cleaner -- that is, their emissions contribute less to smog formation. For example, the new Highlander hybrid has a SULEV (super ultra-low emissions vehicle) engine, which means it is 90% cleaner than the average new vehicle; the gas-engine model is a ULEV II (50% cleaner). As for the effect on global warming, that's a factor of fuel economy. Rule of thumb: Every gallon of gasoline you burn spews 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

Hybrids will get closer to producing zero emissions and will have reduced carbon-dioxide levels when lithium-ion batteries hit the market. With a lithium-ion battery -- the same type of battery that's in your laptop computer -- you'll be able to recharge by plugging into a wall socket and make short trips to the store using just the electric motor. For longer trips, you'll still have a gas engine. Both Toyota and GM are working on the technology, which is likely to be available in the U.S. in two or three years.

Cleaner diesels

Carmakers with diesel models had to hit the pause button on U.S. sales in 2007. New clean-air standards that took effect in January forced them to retool their diesels to reduce particulates, or soot, and nitrous oxides, which contribute to smog. But in 2008, a number of new diesels will join the handful now on the market.

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Most of the models will be from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen -- automakers based in Europe, where half of the vehicles sold are diesels. But Chrysler, GM, Honda and other Japanese carmakers also have plans to offer light-vehicle diesels. The new models should meet even the strict emissions standards imposed by California and four northeastern states, which currently ban diesel sales.

New-generation clean diesels aren't nearly as dirty, noisy or unreliable as the cars many people remember from a generation ago. Although it's made from petroleum, diesel is an easy way to ease oil-shortage and climate-change concerns. Diesel engines get 30% better fuel economy than comparable gasoline engines, and they emit far fewer greenhouse gases. Another bonus: Diesel engines can run on biofuels made from vegetable oils.

The price premium for diesels is less than it is for hybrids. For example, the Mercedes E320 diesel sedan costs only $1,000 more than the gas-engine E350 -- a premium easily recouped through lower fuel costs. That gap could widen slightly as carmakers refine their emissions-cleanup systems.

The ethanol problem

Despite the hype from Detroit automakers, ethanol won't cure our addiction to oil -- at least not anytime soon. Ethanol is made from corn, so it's renewable, homegrown and is responsible for fewer greenhouse gases than petroleum is. Sold as E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline), it already fuels the five-million-plus "flex fuel" vehicles on the road. Those flex-fuel vehicles cost a bit more to build, but carmakers aren't passing along the extra cost.

But ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, and therefore delivers lower fuel economy. Plus, even if every acre of corn grown in the U.S. were used to make ethanol, it would meet only 12% of domestic fuel needs, according to one study by University of Minnesota researchers. Currently, E85 is available at only about a thousand filling stations, most of which are in the Midwest. It costs more to produce than gasoline -- when it's cheaper than gas, the retailer is passing along savings from credits available to the producer. E85 will be a more viable substitute for gasoline when it becomes cost-effective to turn wood chips, cornstalks and even prairie grass into ethanol.

Super-green cars

The cleanest internal-combustion vehicle on the road is a Honda Civic -- but it's not the Civic Hybrid. It's the Civic GX, which runs on natural gas. Driving a GX feels no different than driving any other compact; the only telltale sign is a trunk that's about half the size of the regular Civic's, to accommodate the greater volume of natural gas.

The Civic GX costs less than $700 a year to fuel up -- about half the cost of fueling its conventional sibling. You'll be hard-pressed to find natural gas at your neighborhood filling station; to fuel up, you have to buy or lease a natural-gas dispenser and tap into your local utility line. The dispenser, called Phill, costs $3,200 to $4,000 (or $40 to $70 a month to lease, depending on local clean-energy incentives). Refueling at home takes up to 12 hours, and your driving range is limited to about 250 miles or less.

The Civic GX is available only in New York and California (check www.honda.com to locate dealers). It costs $25,185, or about $7,000 more than a gas-powered Civic LX and $2,000 more than a Civic Hybrid. But generous federal tax incentives help bring down the cost.

After carmakers perfect plug-in rechargeable batteries for hybrids, expect to see more purely electric cars that go beyond golf-cart-like "neighborhood electric vehicles." At last fall's Los Angeles auto show, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated one highway-worthy electric car that's available now to enthusiasts with deep pockets. The Tesla Roadster (www.teslamotors.com) is built by Lotus in Great Britain. The company says the two-seater can top 135 mph and travel 250 miles without recharging. Plus, it goes from zero to 60 mph in a breathtaking four seconds. The price: $99,000.

One of Steinberg's superstar athletes could afford it. But is he ready to leave his big, bad Hummer in the garage?

NEXT: See our Earth-Friendly Autos Scorecard to see how 14 models measure up on the environment.